Yang: When Science Meets Reality – Part II

By ELENA YANG
Los Alamos

When Science Meets Reality – Part II

On the one hand, we laud those who “follow what they believe;” on the other, we fault those who aren’t willing to entertain ideas outside of their beliefs. I am not referring to religion or current members of Congress; instead, my focus is on “when scientists become managers,” and continuing the theme from last week, “when science meets reality.” 

Whenever people say, “Oh, management is just exercising common sense,” I feel like responding with, “And how are your family dynamics (including in-laws if you are married)?  Are you managing them well? Surely, that’s just common sense stuff.” While it’s difficult to admit that “common sense” is largely socially constructed reality, once admitting that we need to be extra weary when people evoke that phrase (click here). Nothing tests scientists’ humanness as much as when scientists move into management ranks, and from there attempting to exercise their brand of common sense. 

Most literature on management and R&D focuses on strategic dimensions, such as dealing with environmental turbulence, international competition or cooperation, resource allocation, oursourcing, etc. All important topics and I can certainly get into lofty discussions in a heartbeat, but in today’s space, I just want to focus on some mundane issue that impact thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of employees working in scientific R&D. The mundane issue is that generic “safety and security”… again. 

Is there a practice that for every new rule installed, at least one old or obsolete rule be tossed out? Conducting scientific experiments these days, a scientist must complete umpteen amount of paperwork (or, computer filing) to assure all rules and regulations have been obeyed.

The university structure is generally flatter than non-profit (are there non-profit R&D organizations?), industries, and national laboratories. At universities, professors are responsible for all the safety procedures in experimental work. In industries, there are more layers of procedure and approval. But at the national labs? You probably need 23 signatures just to burp; God forbid if you need to sneeze! (Hence my parody of using goats as weed control, posted a couple of summers ago. (click here).

From a bystander’s perspective, I hold top management at these institutions and their parent departments accountable for creating the slippery slope of piled-up rules and regulations. National labs have to respond to various stakeholder groups, DOE, NSF, DOD, etc., that ultimately trace back to Congress which has taken micromanagement to an (abstract) art form. 

Many managers at the national labs are scientists, and many of their counterparts at the sponsoring agencies, i.e. DOE, DOD … are scientists, too. They are more familiar with the third law of thermodynamics than I can ever hope to (click here), so they ought to know that tightening screws on safety and security ultimately exacts a costly toll on our collective efforts in innovation and creativity (click here). 

I appreciate that part of the problem is the nature of incremental pressure: One keeps thinking that one more rule, one more measure to address that last incident/accident, one more training requirement to confirm the staff has read that most recent new measure, isn’t going to hurt much. And I definitely sympathize with anyone trying to “educate” the Congress. Still, these scientist-managers ought to know better; they do bear more responsibilities to ensure a more scientifically-attuned environment for their people, by educating the public, including colleagues who aren’t scientists. 

Instead, I have too often witnessed scientists’ turning into whole-hearted enforcers for regulations as soon as they assume their managerial position. It’s as if they succumbed overnight to the need to focus on a clean managerial record with little or no incident/accidents on their watch. Science gets subordinated to a “better safety record.”

Don’t even get me started on lawyers, professionally risk-averse, in such an environment. 

Of course, being a social scientist, I cannot help but seeing other perspectives as well. There is always “on the fifth hand…”

The issue of observing rules and regulations for lower and middle levels of managers in R&D organizations is a little more complicated. These managers don’t have much power to make or change rules, so what are their options? Some would reluctantly cooperate with agents from stakeholder organizations, and some may proactively work with the stakeholder agents (informing and educating for better understanding) to strengthen working relationships … all the while wishing there was a better way. In the proactive approach, the payoff is ultimately a better working environment for the scientists, engineers … all staff members. 

Yet, how often do those holding the opposite perspective regard such a manager as a sell-out … cooperating with “enemies?” This then leads to a different approach, what I term “guerilla tactics,” in which managers try to stall, sabotage, stonewall, undermine, demean stakeholder agents. While tactics like these may seem driven by principles, the satisfaction is short-lived and the actions can backfire. For instance, when someone gets caught breaking rules that may have dire consequences, the entire staff suffers new rules, and the reputation of the organization takes a (further) beating. 

Yes, I show my bias. Truth be told, my temperament actually might lead me to employ “guerilla tactics;” however, I like to believe that I would ultimately use my rationality to see the greater good for a larger population than my own personal satisfaction. 

When activities needed to meet the accumulated rules and regulations take up more than 50 percent of a day’s work for most people in an organization, there is something seriously wrong with that work environment. At the end of a day, when a person realizes that he has done 8+ hours of work without a trace of accomplishment, it makes going back to work the next day just a little tougher. 

I feel like I have a little more reflection on scientist-manager. Next time. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com.

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.

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